The case has also surfaced that even meat-eaters can be taken aback by gory works of art. There is a clear difference in how people perceive the killing of animals for food (which is itself often brutal and exploitative), and the killing of animals for an artwork. “People have a right to question these things even if their ethics aren’t pure,” said Watt.
She speculated that when someone who would happily eat a McDonald’s Big Mac is outraged over the use of an animal in a work of art, their reaction stems from feelings of discomfort over “the idea that an animal’s body is rendered as mere artistic material,” Watt noted. “They don’t see that artists should have any special license to do something that they would be uncomfortable about if someone else did it.” Works that appear to celebrate an animal’s death are particularly problematic.
Outside of physical treatment, the representation of animals is part of the equation regarding if animals are being used ethically, Watt argued. A work of art that reduces animals to a material—as inanimate as paint or clay—can be seen as unethical, especially if it is commenting on human issues unrelated to the animal.
Doing It Right
This isn’t to say that animals can never be used in art. La Trobe University professor Peta Tait, who has written on the use of animals in performance, argued that “it is possible to work with animals that we co-habit with,” citing dogs as a prime example.
She added that using animals in art is more acceptable when the artist has a “close relationship with another species that is part of [their] life.” Performance artist and animal rights activist Rachel Rosenthal, for instance, was famously close to Tatti Wattles, her pet rat, which made several appearances in her art. Tait also suggests that artists “go to the space that the animal inhabits and to make the artwork there.” Sometimes, it’s even possible to win PETA over. The animal rights organization initially disapproved of artist Kathy High’s 2005 installation at MASS MoCA
, where she housed three transgenic rats used in medical experiments. The museum conducted daily conversations around the treatment of the animals, cleaned their habitat routinely, and had a vet checking in on them regularly. Eventually, High said, PETA came to approve of the work, given that the animals were enjoying much better treatment than what they would encounter in a lab. At the conclusion of the exhibition, two staffers adopted two of the rats (which is not an uncommon occurrence in cases where animals are hosted in an institution).
While High’s work began as a critique of the way animals are treated in labs by big pharma companies, it became something of a challenge to museums and the art world. High later expressed
doubt as to whether she should have staged the work in an institutional setting at all, given the way that works of art can be commercialized or objectified. “The irony is that there are still huge problems with exhibiting animals in a gallery or museum space…the animals become commodities again—art objects as opposed to laboratory products,” High writes
. “Perhaps this is an inherent critique of the gallery system too.”